By Ana Veciana-Suarez

As a mother, I would do almost anything to give my children a leg up in life. This is true, I think, for most conscientious parents. Call it biological imperative, if you will.

Flash cards? Check. Suzuki violin lessons? Check. SAT tutor? Done.

This is why the "educational" label is so ubiquitous, and learning colors, figuring out shapes and identifying letters has turned into Big Business. No need to sing the ABCs to your 2-year-old -- how hopelessly old-fashioned! -- when a DVD can flash them in a more entertaining way.

Well-intentioned, hoping to raise a genius or at the very least a well-educated, employable young adult, we fall for every beeping, flashing electronic gizmo that promises to nurture little Jose's intellect. And who can blame us? Anxious times make for neurotic parents.

It turns out, though, that those DVDs are better baby sitters than teachers. Walt Disney Co. recently announced that it's offering refunds to all those who bought its Baby Einstein videos since 2004. The New York Times called it a "tacit admission that they did not increase infant intellect."

Baby Einstein was an early player in the ever-growing electronic education market. When Disney bought it in 2001 from its founder, a mother and an educator, it expanded its line of DVDs and added books, toys and apparel. All the while, Einstein (and Mozart and Shakespeare and Galileo) traded on claims that the products enhanced early childhood development. The public bought this blarney to the tune of $200 million a year, with 90 percent of that going to the Einstein line.

That didn't sit well with the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which complained to the Federal Trade Commission in 2006 about Baby Einstein and another company, Brainy Baby. Though both companies eventually dropped the word "educational" from their advertising, that wasn't enough for the Boston-based coalition of educators, parents and healthcare professionals.

Last year, the group threatened Disney with a class-action lawsuit for unfair and deceptive practices, likely encouraging the refunds. Trying to save face, Baby Einstein didn't mention any lawyers, calling the move an "enhanced consumer satisfaction guarantee." Whatever.

Truth is, the brouhaha over Baby Einstein is merely a reflection of a larger reality we'd like to ignore. Most parents know that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against any screen time for children younger than 2. (This, of course, includes Baby Einstein and its ilk.) They also know that studies consistently show too much exposure to TV at an early age can lead to attention problems in school.

Yet who hasn't parked a fidgety toddler in front of the TV while starting dinner? I sure won't cast the first stone.

Our mothers were right. There is no easy way to raise children, no substitute for consistency and discipline, no short cuts on the path to Harvard or State U. Parenting is an endurance test, plain and simple.

But we can also draw comfort knowing the power of time-tested techniques: nursery rhymes, songs, free play and the simple give-and-take of loving conversation.

That sure worked for Einstein, didn't it?

[ Also: It's Grand to Be a Grandparent ]



Parenting - Why It Doesn't Take An Einstein to Raise Kids